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Shawn Domagal-Goldman - Looking for What's "Out There"
December 9, 2014

Part One of Two

[image-69]Name: Shawn Domagal-Goldman
Title: Research Space Scientist
Organization: Code 699, Planetary Environments Laboratory, Planetary Science Division, Science and Exploration Directorate

Research space scientist Shawn Domagal-Goldman is part of a team looking for life beyond Earth.

What do you do and what is most interesting about your role here at Goddard? How do you help support Goddard’s mission?

I look for ways to look for alien life. NASA is flying missions to search for habitable environments beyond Earth and is planning missions to look for life in any habitable places we find. We are probing a question that humanity has been pondering forever: Are we alone? In our case, we may not necessarily find walking, talking web-surfing aliens. We are interested in looking for any kind of life including bacteria.

I spend most of my time designing future telescope missions to look for life on planets around other stars. I’m currently involved with the Advanced Technology Large Aperture Space Telescope, which is a concept mission we hope will be selected to become one of the big, flagship missions for the next decade. Our goal is to find planets around other stars—called exoplanets—that could be inhabited in a global sense, meaning that life could be thriving at the surface. We want to look for life on those worlds by searching for the gases that life breathes in and out. This is a mission I’ve been dreaming of working on ever since I was in school, so it’s been amazing to be a part of that project.

I also collaborate on the Curiosity mission, which is a rover driving around Mars looking for past habitable environments. I’m fortunate enough to have set foot on this campus at almost the moment that Curiosity landed on Mars. The entire time that I’ve been here, about two years, Curiosity has either been on Mars or on its way to Mars. I came here just in time to work on one of the most interesting scientific experiments ever! It’s so neat and it is a challenge not to take it for granted.

How do you contribute to these missions?

I’m a computer modeler. I use computers to imagine worlds that we might find. For exoplanets, the planets around other stars, I try to think of planets that might be tricky for us to interpret, so that we are better prepared for those tricky cases. For example, we have spent a lot of time coming up with plausible ways that living planets could look dead or that dead planets could look alive.

When we’re doing this, we also find ways to deal with these tricky cases, and then turn that into specific advice to the engineers that design and build the missions.

In the case of Mars, this means imagining versions of the planet that may have existed in the past. The goal is for these versions of the planet to be able to explain the data from our rovers on the planet. We then try to figure out what the “missing pieces” are to our understanding of the planet, so that we can determine what measurements and instruments we need to make in the future.

I start by imagining worlds that could produce or lead to a certain observation that we have made or plan to make. For the telescopes, we want to look for gases that life breathes in and out such as oxygen and methane. For the Mars missions, we want to look for ways for the planet to produce the types of minerals and chemicals that the rovers are detecting. When I try to think of ways that a planet could produce these signals, I have to ensure that whatever I come up with is reasonable, plausible and possible given the geology and astronomy of that particular planet.

Then I take that vision for the planet and use the computer to predict what kind of data that planet would produce. If that doesn't match our observations, we go back to the drawing board to come up with a version of the planet that could match the data. If our predictions match the data, we see if there are other predictions from the model we could test with new measurements.

How important is teamwork or collaboration with others to your being able to do your job?

One of the reasons that I love being at Goddard is that what we are trying to do requires teamwork and collaboration. There is no way that any one person could know everything we need to know to understand these worlds in detail. Instead, we need the best people from geology, astronomy, climate science, biology, engineering, physics and other disciplines to be successful. Good management and leadership are critical too, so we can get these different people working together efficiently. That’s great because whatever your interests and talents are, there’s a role for you on our team.

Read Part Two of Shawn's article.

Read more Conversations With Goddard.

Also read about what our people do Outside Goddard.

Elizabeth M. Jarrell
NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center

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Shawn Domagal-Goldman
Shawn Domagal-Goldman
Image Credit: 
NASA/D. McCallum
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Page Last Updated: December 16th, 2014
Page Editor: Lynn Jenner